Sub-genres of fantasy literature are manifold and multiform, each pursuing and providing a different central idea around which a magical, marvelous world is built. However, to truly understand what each sub-genre entails, one must first look into what fantasy itself is as a genre/type of literature. This series of articles will begin with an overview of most commonly referenced theories of fantasy and the fantastic, and will then move on to explore and analyze fantasy’s most prominent sub-genres.
Theory of Fantasy Literature 101 is divided into six chapters including:
2. On Mythic Fantasy
3. On Epic Fantasy
4. On Magical Realism
5. On Grim-dark Fantasy
6. On Sword & Sorcery
Theory of Fantasy Literature 101: On Mythic Fantasy
Predating any and all theories of the fantastic, mythical tales introduce the idea of otherworldly forces affecting consensus reality. These tales stem from a tradition of oral presentation where stories were not written and edited with specific audiences in mind, but were simply presented at social gatherings. On the nature of myth, American writer and expert in comparative mythology and religion Joseph Campbell (2004) writes:
It would not be too much to say that myth is the secret opening through which the inexhaustible energies of the cosmos pour into human cultural manifestation. Religions, philosophies, arts, the social forms of primitive and historic man, prime discoveries in science and technology, the very dreams that blister sleep, boil up from the basic, magic ring of myth (p. 60).
In a sense, mythologies were never simply tales: they always contained within them thoughts and musings that sought to discover something new about the human condition. That novelty was presented through gods, monsters, and other supernatural elements, but that does not mean that those tales lost contact with reality. There exists a difficulty in understanding mythic narratives today because our society is so far removed from the ancient state of mind. Picture a world in which the only safe places are human settlements. Around them exists an unknown wilderness into which the common man will never venture. This same common man has only one means of experiencing said wilderness remotely: through campfire tales. This logic also extends to all Earthly phenomena that could not be explained in those days – instead of the rational, the mythic became the primary method of deciphering the world.
Campbell presents the idea of the monomyth (a term he borrows from James Joyce) which encapsulates the universality of mythic experiences throughout human history. This concept functions similarly to Jung’s (2005) archetypes which, in simplified terms, mark collective images of the unconscious that are present and recognizable in worldwide cultures despite the fact that those cultures had no contact with one another. It is in this space that mythic fantasy functions, for works of mythology are fundamental reference points for many aspects of culture – no cultural phenomenon draws on mythology more than fantasy. Calling attention to the monomyth and the common archetypes of the collective unconscious serves the purpose of recognizing the shared traits of all mythologies: much of what one says about Greek mythology can easily be applied to all others.
Subsuming mythologies under the umbrella term of ‘fantasy’ is, however, a problematic notion. Fantasy necessitates a departure from consensus reality – the society of 1930s would likely come to the agreement that elves, hobbits, and dragons do not exist and that is why we can easily classify Tolkien’s The Hobbit as fantasy. Sarah Iles Johnston (2015), an American academic with expertise in Classics, notes that stories in mythologies “are always a part of a network” (p. 293) which is to say that one cannot extrapolate a single character or motif without considering the entire spectrum of mythical tales. Furthermore, these tales are culturally begotten: they were not written to become mythology, but the cultural significance they carried made them into one. It is precisely why it is impossible to simply write a mythology: one can create a fantastical world, but myth is indivisible from people and cultures that believed in that myth to be real. In a sense, mythical tales in the days when they were created were not seen as enormous departures from consensus reality: “The world of myths does not comprise a strongly Secondary World” (Johnston 2015, p. 292). There exists a notion of liminality between mythologies and reality - all of us today can agree that events told in myths were not real, but they shaped real cultures and peoples of their time. Thus, to label them ‘fantasy’ detracts from the power they once held as founding stones of entire cultures.
Yet, in them we can observe fantastical elements that have survived and prospered in later works of literature. Even though ‘mythic fantasy’ as such is not a sub-genre of fantasy literature in the modern conception of what a genre entails, it does contain within it certain traits that grew to become (modern) fantasy tropes. For these purposes, let us consider one of the most impactful works of western literature that within it houses many mythological characters and stories – Homer’s Iliad.
Fantastical elements in this work come in the form of Greek gods and goddesses – they are seen as facts of existence and the reader/listener is always certain that gods affect the story. They appear at opportune times and do most damage when they are somehow offended or enraged – they are infrequently depicted as petty and vengeful. A key marking here is the fact that gods can interact with the realm of men, but men can never interact with gods. Therefore, one can observe a clearly divided world that correlates with the ancient conception of reality where strange events were explained as will of the gods. Also, these characters lack any real characterization; they are mere echoes of traits and values attributed to them in various mythological stories.
Another feature is the central heroic figure that is on the verge of being supernatural. Here the aforementioned mythological networking comes into play. Homer’s Achilles is a great warrior with a set of armor forged by god Hephaestus himself, but he is not invulnerable. The idea of the Achilles’ heel being a weak point is a later addition and around it the myth of him being dipped into the river Styx was created. Yet, despite him not being supernatural in Homer’s version of the story, he still provides the framework for later developments in the genre of fantasy. The idea of one extremely powerful character as the ‘protagonist’ (it is difficult to speak of protagonists in Homer’s works, but the point still stands) lives on even today and it epitomizes the way mythic narratives were structured. This heroic figure is the basic point from which fantasy works are created today: some of the most commercially successful works hinge on that one brave character that carries the narrative. The echoes of Achilles and his fellow heroic colleagues are everywhere: Harry Potter, both Frodo and Aragorn (for different reasons), Iron Man, Spider Man, and every other –man that came from comics onto the big screen.
One must keep in mind that fantasy and mythology are two very different things. While popular works of fantasy today affect culture in their own ways, they are nowhere near as ingrained in everyday life as myths were. To truly understand the mythic experience, one would have to travel back in time and listen to the stories being told to their intended audiences, surrounded by the unknowable darkness of the unexplored world, where every rustle of leaves perhaps hides a Nemean lion or two.
Campbell, J. (2004). The Hero With a Thousand Faces. Princeton University Press.
Johnston, S. I. (2015). The Greek Mythic Story World. Arethusa, 48(3), 283–311. https://www.jstor.org/stable/26314624
Jung, C. G. (2005). Four Archetypes: Mother, Rebirth, Spirit, Trickster. Translated by R. F. C. Hull. Routledge Classics.
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